Tunnel Vision, Part III
Chapter 7, Law 6(c)
"All such people [discussed above] are [considered] speakers of lashon
hara (malicious gossip) in whose neighborhood it is forbidden to dwell, and
certainly [it is forbidden] to sit among them and listen to their words. The
[heavenly] decree against our forefathers in the desert was sealed only on
account of lashon hara."
For the past two weeks, we have been discussing the sin of the Spies,
referenced by the Rambam in his final
line. Most of the spies, upon returning from their reconnaissance of the
Holy Land, spoke negatively of it and consequently caused the Children of
Israel to wander in the desert forty years until the entire generation died
out. I'll offer a very brief recap of our discussion thus far before we home
in on the grand finale. I apologize that this discussion has been so drawn
out, but the topic is a fundamental one which needed to be properly developed.
Two weeks ago we asked several questions on the story of the Spies. The
primary ones were: (1) Why do the Torah and Sages describe the spies' sin as
lashon hara -- as slandering the Holy Land? They actually *praised* it -- as
a land abounding in milk and honey. Their sin was something much different
and actually far worse -- doubting G-d's ability to help them conquer the
land from the giants who were then living there. (2) G-d earlier instructed
Moses to tally the tribe of Levi separately from the other tribes in order
that they not be included in the census, as all those counted would be
decreed to died in the desert. But if Levi did not sin, why would they have
been included in the punishment? Was *being counted* the cause of the decree
or actually *sinning*?! (3) Why did the decree itself -- to wander forty
years in the desert -- correspond to the forty days the spies traveled?
Israel's sin was in accepting their words at the end -- not in the numbers
of days a few of their number traveled *planning* to sin at the end! More
generally, G-d does not punish us for planning to sin, only for actually
Our discussion then shifted to Miriam's lashon hara against Moses -- which
the Sages say was the episode the spies should have -- but failed to --
learn from. Miriam complained to Aaron about Moses' separation from his wife
(in order to remain in a constant state of purity for prophecy). *They*
never separated from their spouses although they too were prophets! Why was
*he* any different? G-d subsequently came down to have a little talk with
Miriam and Aaron, describing Moses' uniqueness as a prophet and criticizing
them for being so presumptuous as to speak against him.
We then made an important observation. G-d hardly hinted to Miriam and Aaron
what was *actually* wrong with Miriam's accusation -- namely that Moses
received constant prophecy from G-d and so needed to maintain uninterrupted
purity, whereas Miriam and Aaron received prophecy only on rare occasion --
and that in itself through concerted effort. What G-d did reprimand them
about was the audacity of speaking against someone so much greater than they.
And this is the key to unraveling the entire episode -- both that of Miriam
and that of the spies. The evil of lashon hara has almost nothing to do with
if my criticism of my fellow is founded or not. In Miriam's case it so
happens it was not -- but that was almost besides the point. The true evil
of lashon hara is my failure to appreciate another human being for whom he
truly is, and as a result judging him based on my own biased standards.
Because Miriam failed to appreciate Moses in all his greatness, she felt he
had no business acting any differently from them, and so felt qualified to
complain. As I wrote last week, virtually all problems begin when we fail to
appreciate that others are different from us. He may be more pious and so
have higher standards, or he may be less holy and so less is expected of
him. But fundamentally, lashon hara is a sin of not properly seeing my
fellow in his true light. Without a basic understanding of the differences
between men, accepting others in all their foibles, idiosyncrasies and
differentness is virtually impossible.
Now let us finally return to the story of the Spies. This was precisely
their sin. They traversed the Land of Israel. They should have been
perceptive enough to see through its exterior, to recognize that it is a
land like no other. Although it has a physical side -- we would take arms
and fight battles, we would till the soil and harvest our crops -- they
should have been discerning enough to see that it is truly a spiritual land.
It is a place of closeness to G-d. The physical is merely a facade -- one
which totally yields to the spiritual level of the people. When we serve G-d
the rain comes on time and the Land is blessed with bounty. When we do not,
famine, disease, crop failure, and wild beasts will be our fate (Levit. 26,
What the spies did do, however, was to see Israel as an ordinary land, a
regular physical place in which their lives would be ordinary and mundane.
And as a regular place, it stinks! Why in the world would someone want to
live in Israel when he can live in Florida? The land is tough, the economy
is tough, the tax rate high, the bureaucracy ridiculous, army service
mandatory, security tenuous, there's the ever-present fear of terrorist
attack, etc. If Israel isn't special and unique, why bother fighting a
hundred million bloodthirsty Arabs over it? Give it back! Live in
G-d-blessed America and forget the whole bloody thing! And the world will
love us in the process! (Yeah, right.)
And there were just as many reasons to turn back in those days as well. If
Israel is not a spiritual land, then how were they to conquer it from
giants? Sure had it been Egypt, G-d would have miraculously defeated their
foes, but this was an ordinary land of ordinary living. We would have to
fight on our own -- don't expect miraculous bolts of lightning to descend
from heaven and save us. And if so, we don't stand a chance!
In truth, they should have realized that humans and fruit of enormous
proportions implied a land of tremendous potential. Its current residents
were not attuned to its spiritual side and so its power went untapped, and
was rather transfered to and spent on the physical plane. But physical
giants battling against *spiritual* ones would have been no contest whatsoever.
Thus, the sin of the spies was hauntingly reminiscent of Miriam's. Just as
she saw an enormously lofty human being and cut him down to her own size,
they saw an enormously holy land and in their eyes stripped it of all of its
sanctity. And this is the essence of lashon hara. The sin of the spies and
nation was not in denying *G-d's* power. They knew *G-d* could do miracles
-- they were living with them daily! But once they lowered the Land of
Israel into a regular old parcel of real estate, they saw its value -- as
well as their odds of conquering it -- in a pathetically humdrum light.
This also explains why the punishment decreed against Israel corresponded to
the forty days the spies traveled. Every step they trod upon the land seeing
it as an ordinary place lowered the perception of the Holy Land in the
national consciousness. They were Israel's representatives for forming their
first bond with the Land, and they failed pitiably. The mere walking along
the land -- which to the perceptive soul would have been the rapturous
strolling with G-d in the Garden, was to them a drudgery: sore feet, muddy
boots, poor firewood, thorny underbrush, dull and repetitive scenery.
Walking, treading, trampling over an unholy land was to them onerous. Every
step of their travels lowered the Land's standing in the nation's eyes. And
it took that many years to undo the damage. An entirely new generation had
to be nurtured and raised, one which could forge a newer, fresher and
healthier bond with the Land of Israel.
(Based on this, the forty years were not punishment per se. The entire
nation was not "punished" according to the number of days a few of their
ranks sinned (a year for a day itself being a very demanding exchange rate).
Yet it took that long for a healthy relationship to be formed and to take
root. Sometimes more than punishment itself, the deleterious aftereffects of
sin are felt a very long while after.)
And lastly, this explains why the tribe of Levi would have been punished had
they been included in the census. Even though they did not sin themselves,
after such an experience there was no longer any way they could have
properly related to the Land either. I always illustrate this with a
synagogue in which there is a lot of talking. If you attend a synagogue in
which a lot of folks are talking during the services, it could be that you
personally never say a word. But a synagogue is just not the same to you.
You just don't relate to it with the same reverence. It no longer has that aura.
The same would have been the case with Levi had they been included in the
count. They simply would not have been able to extricate themselves from the
misperception which had entered the nation's psyche and form a healthy
relationship with the Land. For regardless of what they knew intellectually
about Israel's holiness, the Land would have simply lost its aura.
(Parenthetically, this also explains why G-d at first threatened to wipe out
the *entire* nation, save Moses (Numbers 13:12) -- even though this included
Levi, the women, Joshua, and Caleb -- none of whom sinned. To some degree,
everyone was affected by the awful misconception then circulating about the
Land. With such falsehood making its rounds, no one could entirely extricate
himself from its corrupting force -- save Moses, who himself was the victim
of such a misconception. And again, this would not have been "punishment".
Most certainly the innocents would not have been punished in the World to
Come, but to enter the Land on so faulty a basis would have been equally
Thus, to wrap up, we are left not only with an understanding of an important
episode in the Torah, but with a critical life lesson as well. The vast
majority of the time we misjudge others and speak against them is because we
do not see them for whom they really are. As we've seen in past weeks,
lashon hara manifests itself in many guises and forms, from malicious
G-d-denial to empty-headed twittering. But at its root, the lure to speak
foul of my fellow is based on that single most fundamental misconception --
failing to appreciate the rest of humankind for whom they truly are, both in
all their faults and in all their greatness.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org